In the end, J-Lo made the difference. Not ‘Jenny from the Block’, more a chip off the rugged block of Northern League centre forwards. Jamie Owens, Stockton Town’s bustling, bristling presence in the opposition penalty area, turned the game around for his team with two goals to save one of the FA Vase favourites from a proverbial banana skin in Knaresborough.
For Knaresborough, upwardly mobile in recent years, this was a big day. The first century of the club’s existence was largely spent in local football; 2012 brought promotion to the NCEL and two seasons ago a march to the first division title lifted the team up to Step 5 of the non-league pyramid, it’s highest level to date. The tidy ground at Manse Lane has been steadily upgraded to suit: the old brick cover has been replaced with a larger corrugated iron affair boasting a few rows of seats, while covered standing has appeared behind one of the goals. At the other end, carefully dug out of the grass, there are signs that another stand might be on the way. The rise from the West Yorks League has generated a hard-core of about 100 fans – but Saturday’s big cup tie attracted an impressive 503.
Inside, the atmosphere was raucous. Stockton, like Knaresborough, is a club that has climbed the pyramid in recent years. It prides itself on community spirit, seeking to bring local kids through the extensive youth system and into a first team that is currently riding high in Northern League Division One. There’s also a happy history in the FA Vase: two seasons ago the Anchors went to Wembley. With promotion from the Northern League looking like a real possibility this season, this could be the last chance to repeat that adventure. Fans on Teesside certainly weren’t planning to miss out, with three coachloads heading to Knaresborough for Saturday’s first round tie and making sure everyone got to hear about it once they arrived. The hosts included a note of thanks to a neighbouring business for allowing Stockton’s buses to use their car park.
Pre-game expectations were for a comfortable away win. Stockton’s only defeat this season came in the FA Cup at National League North team Guiseley; Knaresborough hadn’t scored in three games and the manager’s programme notes talked about needing a reaction from his team. Two minutes into the game, he had one: a corner was half cleared and Andrew Cooper thundered one into the net. This wasn’t in the script.
Stockton responded reasonably well, but Knaresborough now had something to believe in. A goalmouth scramble saw resolute defending and a slice of luck as the ball bounced down off the bar and away from the goal. The visitors’ pressure generated more excitement than clear-cut chances, the hosts soaked up the pressure and produced moments of menace on the counter. Not even a Stockton equaliser, created and converted by the lively Kevin Hayes, could deflate the home team and on the stroke of half time another corner saw Knaresborough 2-1 up through a Will Lenehan header at the far post.
Then came J-Lo. For much of the game, he looked out of sorts. His usual rampaging presence seemed muted, the chances weren’t quite falling for him and there were signs of frustration. Then, midway through the second half, he fired home an equaliser from the edge of the box. Cue a virtual siege of the home net, with Sam Lee impressive in resisting the onslaught and forcing the game to extra time. And then came Owens again. The defence – not for the first time in the game – waited for an offside flag that never came, the forward didn’t hesitate. Round the keeper and a shot past the covering defenders to make it 3-2 and put Stockton into the hat for the next round.
Celebrations were long and loud among the away fans; the hosts were courteous in defeat and consoled by a battling performance and the prospect of bumper bar takings before the supporters’ coaches left at 6:30. As for J-Lo and his band, the quest for Wembley bling is still very much on.
Manse Lane, Knaresborough, England
Oct. 12, 2019. FA Vase First Round
Knaresborough Town 2 (Cooper, Lenehan) Stockton Town 3 (Hayes, Owens 2)